Board Game Gumbo: Spice it up with Space Base from AEG
I’ll bet a hundred dollars that I’m not the only one with a BGG account that loves rolling dice, or “casually releasing six sided dice onto a table without letting them rotate so you get the exact result you want” (tip o’ the cap to Carlos for that one).
Any takers? Send me a tweet @boardgamegumbo and we’ll square up.
Seriously, I cannot exactly say why I love rolling dice during a board game so much, but I do. It is not that I like roll-and-move mechanics in some games -- I don’t. It’s not that I like the resemblance to gambling -- I know my DNA pretty well, and know to stay as far away from casinos as I can.
So what is it? I think it is just the feel of the dice shaking in my hand as I contemplate the results and subconsciously will those little buggers to give me just the right result. Do you like dice games, too? Does your heart rate pound before the last round of any game involving dice, hoping you will get the numbers you need at just the right time?
Well, then, spice up your game nights with Space Base from AEG. Space Base is a dice based engine builder designed by John D. Clair, who you will recognize from his work as the designer of the Mystic Vale series, with art from Chris Walton. Space Base is for two to five space program builders, and plays in about an hour, especially after your first play. (Note: AEG was kind enough to send us a copy of Space Base for this review.)
If you have ever wanted to command the role of Commodore of a space fleet, here’s your chance. Players each have their own player board (called, of course, a “Command Console”) that has slots for “space ships” assigned to the various dice rolls in order from two to twelve. Each player starts out with the same basic ship cards, one in each slot.
The concept for game play is simple:
Roll the two six-sided dice on your turn;
Get all the rewards in BLUE on your ship cards (known as “station rewards”). The dice roll could give you a bonus of money or dice mitigation, or even victory points, either as a combination (4 + 2 = 6 so take the benefit under your “six” ship card, or 4 + 2 = take the benefits of both your “four” and “two” ship cards); ;
Buy another ship card with the money you have, and reset your money (more about that later);
Hand the dice to the next person at the table; and
First player to 40 victory points triggers the end of the game.
On other players’ turns, your fun continues, and it is even simpler for you. You get whatever rewards are on the red side of the ship card, provided you have moved at least one ship card up to top of your player board, above the corresponding dice roll number. You do this by simply replacing one of the blue topped ship cards in your space station slot (called “deploying a space ship” of course.) . Now, the RED rewards you get from the ship card only come when your friends are taking their turns, and they correspond to the dice results that your friends end up rolling. So, if they roll a 4 + 2, you can take the RED benefits of your four and two ship cards, or take the six ship card bonus. This time, you do not get to buy (unless your ship cards say otherwise.)
If your ships have a green power on the ship card, pat yourself on the back in an awkward manner, because that power can be used on your turn or on the other player’s turns. Pretty, pretty, pretty powerful.
The game has a lot more depth than what I just described. You will be pulling levers and turning knobs and flicking switches all over your board. You’ll likely devise a combo strategy based on your initial ship cards and the first ones you purchase in the available market, which John calls “The Shipyard.” All of these cards grant you crazy special powers, if you are lucky enough -- or your friends are lucky enough for you -- to roll the corresponding numbers. Get enough money on your board, and you can buy “Colony Cards”, which basically replace the ships on your Command Console, giving you tons of victory points but nothing in reward when you (and only you) roll that number on your turn.
The game is super easy to teach. The only hang up is in the timing of the blue - green - red colors, but once your friends have it down, the game rolls along at a pretty fast clip..
AEG has been hitting some of their recent games out of the solar system in terms of production, and Space Base is no exception. There’s some fun art on the cards and in the rule book, although from an artistic standpoint, the art assets are fairly limited. The board itself makes perfect sense -- good solid cardboard player boards, plenty of space for your space cards and the cubes representing your money, your victory points, and also your “backstop” -- when you spend any money, you spend it all in this game, but when you reset at the end of the turn, your money level jumps back up to however far you have developed your monetary floor. No matter how much you spend, you will always start with that level of money again, giving you a leg up on buying bigger and better cards later in the game.
There are only three cubes on each board, so I have not heard the complaints we saw in Terraforming Mars regarding the cubes sliding around. It is funny that a great game like Scorpius Freighter went all out on recessed cardboard for the tiles, but the game that you really use recessed cardboard considering all of the cubes being pushed around, does not have it. It is a minor complaint, though, because the board and the components play very well together.
The marketplace of cards is always a “wow” moment when I pull out the game. Most gamers have seen just about every size and shape of cards, from the traditional magic style of Imperial Settlers, to the tiny little cards in half of FFG’s offerings. But, I can’t recall seeing any cards like the ones in Space Base. They are long, lean and tall, and in some ways, feel like little spaceships in your hands. Kudos to the design team for injecting just a little bit of theme into the size and shape of the cards. They really set the mood.
BUT IS IT FUN?
I went into my first play of this game, way back in May at MobiCon 2018, with a lot of trepidation. Sure, the theme seemed pretty enticing. And I love chucking those bones. But, is this game just Machi Koro dressed up with a space overlay? Of course, I was pleasantly surprised. We played a four player game in about an hour and had a blast. I could see already just from that first play that while the two games shared the same roll-the-dice-buy-cards and build-your-engine mechanism, the two games were wildly dissimilar. I played with some gentlemen from Lower Alabama and Mississippi, and we had a fine time getting excited every time someone rolled a favored number, or when we purchased a ship card at just the right time to capitalize on our next turn.
Since then, I have played it at every player count. I love how every game since MobiCon has seen a different winner using a different strategy. In Space Base, it feels even after playing a half dozen games at every play count that there is no *right* strategy.
Do you want to roll with the benefits coming from the most common numbers, 6-7-8? You can, although your rewards might not be as grandiose as those at 10-11-12.
Do you want to shoot the moon for the big numbers that rarely come up, and maybe manipulate the dice rolls with special bonuses to force those tough numbers to win big for you? You could be starting pretty slow but take off, ahem, like a rocket near the end of the game.
Or maybe your goal is to take the easy numbers? Are you inclined to grab the low hanging fruit each round, like the 1-2-3-4-5-6 that you know will come up just about every throw, and sometimes give you double rewards?
I do not really have a lot of quibbles in this game (that's why it is in my top ten of this past year), because it pushes all the right buttons for me. Oh, you have probably heard the whispers that the game plays a little long for the experience you get or that some players can get a little bit of analysis paralysis when they stare hungrily at an entire row of cards for a few minutes. Not true in my plays. Yes, the front half of the game has always developed a little slowly, but the back half has always felt like a speedy sprint to the finish. Inevitably, at least one of the players will frown at the end of the game and say, “I just needed one more turn!” It happens every time.
Half of the fun of this game is surveying the landscape, and making that delicious decision as to which cards to buy early on. Money is tight in the early game, but there are tons of options, and it can be a little frustrating to watch players agonize over the benefits of three or four cards. But once the player’s engines get rolling, the decision tree seems to narrow a bit, and the tension changes into when to take the foot off the gas and turn that engine into points by buying the victory point ship cards. The victory point (“Colony”) cards are expensive and they clog up the board (no longer allowing you to get bonuses on your turn) but they do give TONS of victory points and are generally the key to victory.
The other half of the fun of this game is divided in my mind between the thrill of rolling dice and scoring a big combo turn, or even doing it on other people’s turns. The game just makes you feel clever in that regard, even if so much of it is based on luck. Mix in the fact that you can watch other people develop their own unique strategy based on the ship cards that come out in the market, and you’ve the makings of a great experience.
But it is not all pulsars and comet tails. If you like perfect information and zero randomness in your games, well, frankly, this game is probably not for you. Space Base has a lot of strategy in it, but still has roots in games that fit in the beer & pretzels category. Sure, there is a good level of player activity, since you are invested especially by mid game in the outcome of each other player’s turn. I cannot help staring at the other player’s dice rolls, getting the benefits of each roll in the space cards you have invested, but that action is usually pretty limited until you get the more complicated chaining cards later in the game. But even though there is a strong incentive to pay close attention, I do not find the attention needed to be so dominating that you cannot socialize a bit during the turns. Space Base definitely leans toward the breezy side of games on the market, so if you are not into that style of game, stay away.
For those of you who are fans of direct player interaction, then this is probably not your game either. I will tell you to give it a try, however, because it is certainly not multiplayer solitaire. Not only do you get those rewards I spoke about earlier every time someone rolls a favorable number in your deployed cards, but there are also a few surprise cards in the deck that keep you on your toes.
For instance, at least one of the cards is essentially a direct combat card, the UES Gordon 7981-G “a destroyer” ship card. If you can manage to secure the reward that this ship card brings, all other other players will lose four victory points every time you activitate it. There is even an instant win card in the deck. The requirements on the UES Armstrong are tough to accomplish, but if you do, the game ends immediately and you are the winner. Once a player purchases that card, you can bet that the other players will be gunning to buy the cards the player needs out from under her so as not to allow an immediate victory.
So, I’ve answered if Space Base is fun for me (it is -- one of my top ten games of 2018). More importantly, will it be any fun for you? (Like I could ever hope to answer that from behind this keyboard a thousand miles from your kitchen table.) Well, if you like any of the myriad of engine builders that we have seen lately, and especially if you don’t mind a little chaos introduced with dice, then I am positive you are going to like Space Base. It is certainly worth your time to seek Space Base out and try it.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
-- BJ @boardgamegumbo